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VINE VOICEon 15 December 2014
I first read about Penelope Fitzgerald in an essay by Julian Barnes (in his Through the Window collection), and, selecting more or less at random from her books, bought this novel for my daughter last Christmas. It's the odd tale of Frank Reid, an Englishman adrift in the rapidly changing setting of pre-revolutionary Moscow. As the story opens, Frank's wife has just run away without explanation, leaving him to look after their three children, and he's obliged to try and re-construct his relationships with his servants, colleagues, the expatriate community and various acquaintances. This is achieved (if that's the right word) with characteristically Russian misunderstandings, muddles and confusion - particularly when Frank's colleague inserts a young girl from the country (ostensibly to look after the children) into the household. It's a short book and an easy read, partly because of the deftly gentle touch of the author, her exactly visual description of a vanished city and time, and the occasional flashes of humour - e.g. "Frank had a room in a boarding house where the landlady, probably unintentionally, as it seemed to him, was gradually starving him to death" [p28].

And yet, I kept thinking of Sebastian Faulks' description of her novels as like being taken for a ride in a car whose structure and fittings all fill you with confidence, until someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window. There are lots of subtleties in the story which closely engage the reader's attention as they travel around Moscow with Frank and take part in his encounters with characters having a varying degree of trustworthiness. By the time you reach the end of the journey, you're not quite sure where you've been or how you ended up here, but you're sure it's been a worthwhile experience.
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on 24 May 2014
In Spanish we say that "lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno". The compactness yet richness of this novel is extraordinary. Richness of place and time (Moscow and the country forest is conjured with extraordinary vividness), richness of character (parents, children, servants, workers...) richness of emotions (puzzlement, hope, elation, sadness, fear...) Fabulous writing: simplicity itself (apparently!!) with a quirky, unexpected humour and irony which made me laugh out aloud a number of times, but I also cried. I was hooked in a text where the historical setting and the echoes of Anna Karenina give the reader even more to chew... I totally recommend this story of love and loss, and everyday tragicomedy. I gave it to my extremely astute and literate Russian friend and she was enthralled; could not believe an English author could have created such a convincing world.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 March 2018
Frank Reid, an Englishman who ran a small and old-fashioned manual printing press in Moscow, returns home one evening in 1913 to find a letter from his wife Nellie to say that she had gone back to England, taking their children Dolly (10), Ben (9) and Annushka (3) with her. His despair was alleviated soon afterwards by a message from a local station-master that the three children had turned up, without their mother, and were ready to be collected. Their mother had sent them back from Mozhaisk because she couldn’t cope with them without their nanny, Dunyasha. We learn only near the end of the book why she left.

Once we know the children have returned, there is then a lot of back-story: about Frank’s father, about the printing factory, about how young Frank had been sent for training to England and later to Germany, about how he and Nelly had met and had married, and about the political background in both England (the strikes and social unrest about 1911) and in Russia (the 1905 Revolution, the reign and assassination of Stolypin).

Back to Frank and the children. The nanny, Dunyasha, had left, and Frank was looking for another woman to look after the children. The manager of the printing works, Selwyn Crane, suggested a young woman called Lisa Ivanova, and Frank engages her. There will be complications.

The book reads easily and is sometimes often amusing; and the atmosphere and ways of life in Moscow are well-conveyed. Some of the characters are memorable (Selwyn, the office manager and poet, with his Tolstoyan outlook on life, or the two elder children with their outspoken comments); some, like Lisa, are enigmatic; while others, like the merchant Kuryatin, are caricatures. But I did not find the central character, Frank himself, very convincing, and I cannot believe in the episode in which he, very indulgently, deals with a student called Volodya who has broken into his printing works, fired a pistol when Frank arrived and badly damaged the printing frame; we only find out later why he did this. There is a rather pointless visit to Moscow by Charles, Nellie’s brother, whom she had briefly looked up when she had arrived in England but of whose present whereabouts he did not know. There is a mysterious and unexplained scene in the forest outside the family dacha. The story doesn’t really hang together, moves inconsequentially from one episode to another. There is of course nothing wrong with an unexpected ending – but the ending here is also largely unexplained – I say “largely”, because, in retrospect, just one sentence some chapters before makes the final sentence possible.
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on 30 May 2018
“In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and three pence and took two and a half days”. The opening line kills it.

In Moscow the ice thaws and spring is beginning. Frank Reid runs a printing business, and a household with three children and Nellie, his wife – who departs the scene almost at once in the manner stated in the first sentence. The author briefly suggests how things perhaps came to this pass before moving Frank onto the practicalities of getting on with things as best he can. Many characters come forward to involve themselves in his life – not always invited or welcome or helpful. Strangers and friends, servants and revolutionaries, priests and poets, students and secret policemen.

Her deft writing, humorous slant and acute phrase puts in a sentence for which another would require a chapter. She pictures a Russia teeming with life as the buds stretch out on the birch trees. The detail is as accurate throughout as in the first words.

We know that the revolution in Frank’s life is nothing to what is coming. Penelope Fitzgerald leaves us wondering where this will take all the characters she created.
Loved this.
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on 17 May 2018
Having ploughed my way through this story, I have been left feeling slightly perplexed by all the excessive praise. Penelope Fitzgerald writes with what one might call an economy of style, which sometimes works well, but in this case doesn’t. It was interesting in a way, and evocative of an era and a country, but not engaging enough to make me like or feel any particular interest in the various characters.
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on 5 February 2014
Having visited the Soviet Union in the mid 1970's, I felt as though I was back there when reading this book - but without the fear of the KGB!
Fitzgerald draws the reader into the lives of the characters immediately and what could have been a sad situation is treated with a gentle humour. She captures both the nuances of behaviour and the atmosphere of the slow ending of a Russian winter with great sensitivity
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on 25 April 2018
I found this book boring . I kept waiting for something to happen and it never did . Not my cup of tea
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on 18 April 2016
Moscow is the protagonist in this story - I found it difficult to emotionally engage with all other characters. They lacked development. Some fine touches of humour though.
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on 20 May 2017
Beautifully written book and a fascinating insight into - ex-pat! - life in Moscow before the revolution.
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on 19 January 2017
very well written depth of knowledge about Russia made book interesting and unusual storyline
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